Ai Weiwei Joins Google+; Users Protest True Name Policy

“In the once-upon-a-time days of the First Age of Magic, the prudent sorcerer regarded his own true name as his most valued possession but also the greatest threat to his continued good health, for-the stories go-once an enemy, even a weak unskilled enemy, learned the sorcerer’s true name, then routine and widely known spells could destroy or enslave even the most powerful. As times passed, and we graduated to the Age of Reason and thence to the first and second industrial revolutions, such notions were discredited. Now it seems that the Wheel has turned full circle (even if there never really was a First Age) and we are back to worrying about true names again …”

— Vernor Vinge, “True Names“, 1981

Ai Weiwei has recently joined Google+, having fallen silent on Twitter since his release last month. From Penn Olson:

In his first post on G+ this afternoon, at 1:44pm local time, Ai Wei-wei said simply, “Greetings. I’m here!” He was quickly greeted with over 3,400 people adding him to their circles, and over 100 comments on his first G+ missive.

Less than an hour later, Mr Ai posted a self-portrait photo to prove its authenticity. The number of established Chinese bloggers who are following him also proves it’s his genuine profile.

Ai Wei-wei has sneaked some cheeky humour into the ‘About’ section of his new G+ profile, describing himself as a “suspected pornography enthusiast and tax evader” – a reference to two of the many police charges leveled at him recently.

Among Ai’s posts is a gallery of photographs from his decade in New York, from 1983 to 1993.

Meanwhile, Steven Millward at Penn Olson reports discontent among other Chinese users, following the suspension of a number of accounts for the use of pseudonyms.

As each day goes by, more Chinese users are getting deleted from G+ due to their usage of a nickname on the site. For some it’s a habit carried over from their Tencent QQ profiles, but for others it’s about having a degree of anonymity for safety’s sake, to be able to engage in debates on sensitive topics in a country where free speech on every subject is not possible.

Hundreds of Chinese users on Google Plus – a significant number of the total now on there – have been circulating a plea to Google on this issue, written in Chinese by someone called ‘NewsinChina Tweeter’ – see the full text here. Almost inevitably, that user got booted from G+ over the weekend. The text contains the entreaty (my own translation):

Please, Google+, on the issue of naming, be sure to consider the Chinese consumer’s behaviour, especially of users in mainland China. … Please do not force them into the real-name system. Otherwise I’d think that Google has been in violation of its own “Do no evil” principle.

For European and other western nationals, the various social networking sites, like Twitter, Facebook and G+ itself, are just pure social tools. But for Chinese users, the significance of these social networking sites has never been just that kind of tool, but also a symbol of a kind of freedom of expression and resistance to undue scrutiny.

The controversy echoes similar cases on Facebook, including the suspension of activist and journalist Michael Anti’s (legal name: Zhao Jing) account. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin wrote an open letter to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, expressing concern at the potential consequences of this policy for users living under repressive regimes:

Recent events in Egypt and Tunisia have again highlighted the significant benefits and costs of social networking technology like Facebook to democracy and human rights activists. Facebook has facilitated efforts by activists to organize demonstrations and publicize human-rights abuses. At the same time, the Egyptian and Tunisian governments have reportedly used Facebook to monitor activists, which is surely aided by Facebook’s refusal to allow activists to use pseudonyms.

Google+’s User Content and Conduct Policy does appear more flexible than Facebook’s, permitting and even encouraging the use of established, real-world pseudonyms like Michael Anti’s:

13. Display Name

To help fight spam and prevent fake profiles, use the name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you. For example, if your full legal name is Charles Jones Jr. but you normally use Chuck Jones or Junior Jones, either of those would be acceptable.

… when applying our policies, we may make exceptions based on artistic, educational, or documentary considerations, or when there are other substantial benefits to the public from not taking action.

Google Vice President Vic Gundotra assured Robert Scoble that the existing rules were a work in progress:

He says that he is trying to make sure a positive tone gets set here. Like when a restaurant doesn’t allow people who aren’t wearing shirts to enter.

He says it isn’t about real names. He says he isn’t using his legal name here. He says, instead, it is about having common names and removing people who spell their names in weird ways, like using upside-down characters, or who are using obviously fake names, like “god” or worse.

He says they have made some mistakes while doing the first pass at this and they are learning. He also says the team will change how they communicate with people. IE, let them know what they are doing wrong, etc ….

He also says they are working on ways to handle pseudonyms, but that will be a while before the team can turn on those features (everyone is working hard on a raft of different things and can’t just react overnight to community needs).

Another Google VP, Bradley Horowitz, later explained the first steps towards improvement. From CNET News:

First, people who violate the policy will no longer see their profiles automatically suspended and will instead receive a warning and be given a chance to adjust their name. Google has provided a Web page explaining how users can edit their profile names to follow the policy’s requirements. The company also promises to set better expectations as far as the next steps and timeframes for users who need to adjust their profile names.

Second, Google is aiming to improve the overall Google+ signup process to help people create profiles that won’t get them into trouble later on.

Third, Google is trying to placate people who’d like to display a nickname, maiden name, or other alternative name within their profiles. Though the actual profile name will still limit you to your real name, two workarounds will be offered …

Neither of these two workarounds—addition of nicknames in an “other names” section, and greater visibility of other identifying information—offers a solution to those for whom the use of a pseudonym is a matter of protective anonymity.

Dave Winer argues that talk of restaurants and shirts conceals Google’s real motives:

There’s a very simple business reason why Google cares if they have your real name. It means it’s possible to cross-relate your account with your buying behavior with their partners, who might be banks, retailers, supermarkets, hospitals, airlines. To connect with your use of cell phones that might be running their mobile operating system. To provide identity in a commerce-ready way. And to give them information about what you do on the Internet, without obfuscation of pseudonyms.

Simply put, a real name is worth more than a fake one.